Thursday, January 24, 2013

Brooks and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Conservatism”

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, public intellectual, moral scold, and man about town, is teaching a course at Yale on Humility. His syllabus is here. Do I hear titters there in the back?

Oh, ye of little faith. Why are you so afraid? Should David Brooks rebuke the winds and the sea and bring about a great calm?

Do you believe that David Brooks has not the depth of wisdom to only assign readings that agree with his preconceptions, the humility to assign his own work, the breadth of scholarship necessary to skim the titles of several books mostly about famous, dead, white men? Why should we not think that Brooks is capable of all these great virtues, yea, the greatest of great virtues, for has not the Brooks so spaken . . . er. . . spoken?

According to this interview, which may also be a subtle parody, this syllabus actually is for David Brooks’s course at Yale. Here, then, is the humiliated, or humbletastic, Mr. Brooks’s syllabus to the privileged, the special few, of Yale to teach unto them their virtues.

"All of us have been raised in a culture that encourages us to think well of ourselves and to follow your passion and all that kind of stuff," he continued. "I don't see why it is ridiculous to spend a few months reading people who tell us not to be all that self-impressed, to suspect you aren't as smart, virtuous and aware as you think. Surely this is a potentially useful antidote for me or anybody else."

Indeed, Mr. Brooks sees not the humor of poking fun at his course since, verily, is not humility a virtue? Is not goodness good? Wherefore, then, the wisecrackery?

I shall, as fellow alum of the greatest, least humble, of the non-coastal US universities, explain for Mr. Brooks the joke. I provide the complete syllabus not to steal his ideas but to emphasize (I hope) that I am not treating him unfairly.

His Title:

The Humility Course

Perhaps the above-linked interview was fraudulent. (Perhaps the interview was conducted by email. How do we even know that this “David Brooks” character exists? Could he have been created by malicious Samoans?) “The” Humility Course? Isn’t it obvious that its designation as the unique humility course is decidedly not humble? Perhaps Brooks wishes to teach the concept of humility by means of contrasts? But still, one need not be humble to teach humility. (Nor need one be a member of the upper class to have something to teach the elect, of course, but Brooks’s preferences notwithstanding, we shall not let that detain us here.) And so we must go on to the substance of the course.

The instructor:

David Brooks

Office: Rosenkranz 343

Our second piece of evidence that this is subtle parody: Is this a real building? Has Brooks been sent to Yale to die, clueless, his life and death only an afterthought in the grand play of the cosmos? Is Brooks’s life (to borrow from a different drama) “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Is this office Brooks’s recognition of the futility of his existence, finally a sign of humility? Also, why didn’t Guildenstern get a building?
Here is the description and some readings.

Course Description:
Everyone says character is important to leadership but few people know how to build it. This course will survey one character-building tradition, one that emphasizes modesty and humility. The strategies covered here start from a similar premise—that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance and weakness. Character emerges from the internal struggles against one’s own limitations.

We will start in the current moment. How do we conceive of character building today? We will then trace this humility tradition in its different forms over the centuries—from Moses to Augustine, to Montaigne, Burke, Niebuhr and so on. We will make special effort throughout to connect the themes of each session to practical politics and leadership.

Course Texts:
General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman” by Ed Cray; Publisher: Cooper Square Press (June 6, 2000)

“Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do And Who We Should Be” by Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass; Publisher: Eerdmans Pub Co (May 15, 2006)

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan; Publisher: Free Press (October 1, 1998)

“Augustine of Hippo” by Peter Brown; Publisher: University of California Press; Revised Edition (August 7, 2000)

“How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” by Sarah Bakewell; Publisher: Other Press (October 19, 2010)

Lordy, lordy, we cannot read the great men’s works themselves but must rely on biographers to explain their thought to us? Are Augustine’s Confessions too overwrought? Montaigne’s essays too long for our precious Elis? Can anyone, really, other than a Neocon, interpret Pericles? Were his famous orations too oratorical for Brooks’s humble mind? Or are the words of the greats so humble that they would inflame the Yalies’ brains like sunlight inflames a vampire? Can the intellectual leaders of tomorrow not comprehend ideas without a guide ready to hand to provide interpretation, like a Faith Partner’s Bible, leading them to a preordained (forgive the pun) conclusion? Or might that guide be intended as maybe, just a little, a touch, a skosh, to support Brooks’s worldview?

Continuing on, we have more readings:

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke; Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; Reissue edition (June 15, 2009)

“The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist” Dorothy Day; Publisher: HarperOne (December 6, 1996)

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr; Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (May 1, 2008)

Now, it seems we have works worthy of direct inspection from thinkers as diverse as the Anglican founder of modern conservatism Edmund Burke, to a Catholic pacifist (at least she wouldn’t endorse invading Iraq!) and social activist Dorothy Day, to the protestant minister and public ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. In other words, our thoughts directly on the topic of humility (rather than interpreted by another author) run the gamut of religious conservatism to religious activism to religious political realism. Is virtue the sole province of the religious? Who could doubt it? Not Mr. Brooks.

Some more readings and assignments:

“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman; Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2011, Reprint edition (April 2, 2013)

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin; Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher (1993)

Assignment 1: Mid-Term paper of 2,500 words. Students will be asked to grapple with the indictment of their generation made by Christian Smith, Alasdair Macintyre and Jean Twenge. Due Date: February 26. Deliver Hard Copy at end of class. 40% of the final grade.

Course Readings and Schedule

Week 1: The Reticence Code (January 15)
How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country? We will survey episodes from the lives of George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and various “Wise Men.” We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities.

Indeed, what can be learned of humility except in the study of the most privileged in our society? Does he think the only way to appeal to anyone is by holding up a mirror? Or is it only Mr. Brooks who thinks solely of himself?

Week 2: The Cultural Shift (January 22)
Why did America reject the values of the Protestant Establishment? What replaced it? We will explore the cultural shift that took place between 1950s and today against the character code of the old elite, including the thinking of Carl Rodgers and a more meritocratic system.

Are our assumptions showing here, like a staid undergarment, revealed through embarrassingly sheer outerwear? Has ‘humility’ now been revealed as the thin pretext for a course extolling conservative religious values? Indeed, has America rejected the “values of the Protestant Establishment”? Did some other set of values replace them? I will leave aside any comment on the grammar of the final sentence above, except to wonder if we are supposed to oppose meritocracies. (One can imagine why Mr. Brooks might oppose such an idea. . .)

Brooks’s preconceptions are on display in these questions: Our society should have the conservative, Protestant (mostly), cultural, religious, and moral values.
Reading: The Organization Kid, The Atlantic Monthly by David Brooks

What, was there no biography of David Brooks available?

Week 3: The Effects (January 29)
What have been the effects of this cultural shift? Has there been a rise in narcissism? Is the culture less effective at transmitting a character code? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this culture?

Reading: Passages From Leading Lives that Matter. Edited By Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass

Has Mr. Brooks not written enough about the narcissism of American culture? Must he speak on and on about the narcissism of contemporary America? Note the subtlety: Is the culture less effective in transmitting this ‘character code’? (Whatever a character code is. Anyway, hmm, I’m guessing his answer is ‘yes’, call me crazy or prescient or sentient.) And then: “strengths and weaknesses”? Careful, Brooksie, old bean, don’t give away the game. Good job.

The syllabus continues:

Week 4: Pericles (February 5)
We begin our historical survey with Athens. What was the Homeric Honor Code? How did Greeks conceive of hubris? We conclude with an examination of Pericles, the man who sought eternal fame through service to the nation.

Reading: Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan

Week 5: Moses (February 12)
Moses was the opposite of a Greek hero. He was described as the most humble man on earth. How does the bible portray heroism? We look at the Jewish formula of character building through obedience to law. We look at the way the rabbinic tradition has interpreted the struggle between internal goodness and the evil urge.

Reading: The Book of Exodus.

Week 6: Augustine (February 19)
We look at how Augustine conceived of pride and sin. We look at the way he built a moral code around the virtue of humility

Reading: Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown Chapters 1-12, 15-20, 22, 26-31

Week 7: Montaigne (February 26)
From moral and religious humility, we begin our shift to epistemological humility. How did Montaigne believe we can best understand ourselves? How did his way of observing the world differ from grander and more systematic methods?

Reading: How to Live by Sarah Bakewell Pages 1-221

Week 8: Burke (March 5)
Edmund Burke argued that the power of reason is weak and that people are wiser to rely upon just prejudices and tradition. Given his tendency to distrust reason and rapid change, how did Burke believe politics and reform should be pursued?

Reading: Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke Parts 1-8

Week 9: Florence Perkins and Dorothy Day (March 26)
Perkins grew up in Maine and was inculcated with a sense of mission at Mount Holyoke. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire she devoted herself to worker safety and public service. Day was a young suffragette who founded the Catholic Worker and many other institutions of social action. How did Perkins and Day turn Christian humility into political service?

Reading: The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

Week 10: Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr (April 2)
Niebuhr devised an Augustinian vision for modern times, holding that by his sinfulness man is a problem to himself. He argued for political action, while understanding that power is inherently corrupting. How did Niebuhr believe power should be used? Why did he oppose idealism? How was MLK and the civil rights movement influenced by Niebuhran thought?

Reading: The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr

Brooks’s continuing preoccupation with religious conceptions of humility, service, and sin become disturbing.

Week 11: Seemliness (April 9)
Modern societies have become economically and socially more unequal. We will explore status competition and the desire for social distinction—executives who feel unabashed when asking for lavish salaries. We will ask whether it is proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car. We will look at codes of social modesty and ask whether modest people make better business leaders

Readings: Online essay: Level 5 Leadership by James Collins. Harvard Business Review
Passages from Leading Lives That Matter

Here is the butt of so many internet jokes. No Yale stickers in my window? How will anyone know to crap on my car? Can I put a Harvard sticker on there, provided the car’s primary color is Bondo? Is a University of Chicago t-shirt ok, or must I wear a hairshirt instead? If Brooks does not intend this trivializing of a serious concept as humorous, then I must needs do more to explain the nature of humor to Brooks before he will understand the internet titters (titwitters? twittitters?).

Week 12: Cognitive Modesty (April 16)
Over the past thirty years we have learned a great deal about the operations of the brain. One core finding is that much of our thinking happens below awareness at a cognitive level that is fast, associative, sloppy and sometimes misleading. How should we make decisions and calculate risks if we can’t even be sure of our own thinking.

Reading: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (Relevant sections to come)

No one had previously noted the inaccuracy of human thought processes. Perhaps Brooks is more an example of “fast, associative, sloppy and sometimes misleading” thought than he is an elucidator of those concepts. Perhaps as an undergraduate in a great books program he thought too quickly, associatively, sloppily, and misleadingly to recognize the contribution of philosophers (aside from just Montaigne) to the debate over the limits of human reason.

Seriously, though, there is nothing wrong with keeping up with recent research on cognitive psychology and the limitations of our knowledge. What I dread is the superficiality of Brooks’s understanding of it given his need to teach from a popular, non-academic book. If you would know about the limits of human reason, you would not rely on the Sparknotes version of Descartes’ Meditations.

Week 13: Fate (April 23)
In the 1940s researchers began a longitudinal study tracing the life courses of Harvard Men. These men had every advantage, but a third of them had their lives ravaged by alcoholism and other setbacks. However well one is trained for life, one cannot control life. We’ll look at the Grant study and other studies of how lives develop.

Reading: What Makes Us Happy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The Atlantic

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin

Dare I say it? Perhaps all the advantages the elite power structure in America could give these Harvard Men was somehow inadequate to full moral, intellectual, and social fulfillment. Brooks allows that one cannot control one's life. If I am struck by frozen effluvia falling from a passing jet, that is beyond my control. If fully a third of these men have their lives ravaged, this might be more than cause for recitation of the Serenity prayer but instead a reason to consider that something is wrong with the social circumstances that led to this outcome. We might consider that something in their upbringing and culture was responsible for this fact. Perhaps I am unfair to Brooks—perhaps he does take this data as critique of the elitist social structure that led to these ravages—but blaming fate tells us nothing. (Unless, perhaps, the problem is not enough God and humility.)

Final comments:
I tried to give Brooks the benefit of the doubt and consider that his course might have some salutary effect on the presumably (?) pampered elites of Yale, but every sentence exudes self-satisfaction and smugness as Brooks leads ever onward from superficiality to superficiality to reach a predetermined outcome. Every reading and summary suggests that religious conceptions of the self, knowledge, and the universe should lead to a conservative view of human nature and our role in society, and that humility, apparently conceived as abasement before the dark god of Christianity (who punishes us with alcoholism if we fail to be properly Christian), is the best way to lead us to lives of service to others. (Caution: Service may include bombings and invasions of other countries based on scanty-to-non-existent evidence. But live-and-learn, fate is cruel, and humans are fallible, associative thinkers, and whatnot; no harm no foul; no need to bicker and argue about who killed who.)

Let me, as a teacher, explain the joke to Mr. Brooks. It is not the superficial design flaws (e.g. a course in humility taught using your own works) in your course that give rise to such humor. It is the fundamental design flaw in your course. The goal of a course is not to proceed linearly from assumption to preordained destination, but to explore a set of ideas and reasons with a view to encouraging the students to reach their own conclusions, even if those conclusions are diametrically opposed to your own, based on the best reasoning (e.g. the best first-hand sources of arguments and ideas) available. A college course is a rambling trek through a rugged, uncharted country, a struggle up hills and through hazardous terrain, with the constant danger of pitfalls and bogs, and “Here there be dragons”. Mr. Brooks seems to believe a college course is a breezy stroll along the surface of his mind, a paved sidewalk past a manicured lawn, eventually reaching a preordained destination, a foregone conclusion if you will. Education is not a popular book made up of a few superficial observations assembled into a rickety edifice that sways in the slightest breeze of criticism or doubt. The point of teaching, for the teacher as much or more than for the students, is to question one’s deepest convictions, to make the strongest case one can against one’s own predispositions, and challenge oneself to meet those arguments, or failing that, to admit one’s failure and consider alternatives. True care for education, requires that “Challenge thyself” be as fundamental a precept as “Know thyself”. Sadly, Mr. Brooks appears to do neither.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Things that I like:
For my final exam in introduction to philosophy last fall, a student wrote on her blue book exam under Instructor: “The Best One”

Churches I will Not Attend (Okay, it's true that I avoid all churches, but really. . .)

Free Will Baptist Megachurch:
Wednesday Night Word Explosion
I don’t know what a Word Explosion is, but I try to avoid explosions of any kind.

Eternal Word Ministries:
The sermons at this place are interminable.

Strip mall church:
Advertisement: Practice Resurrection!
I was under the impression one only got one shot at this. I would prefer to put it off as long as possible.

Name Nazi:
It sometimes bothers me that Dwyane Wade’s name is misspelled. Am I the only one who notices this? Of course, in a way, the idea that one’s name could be misspelled is absurd. Names are purely conventional; any string of symbols that one’s society agrees to treat as referring directly to that person count as the name for that person. There are limits, however to what you can get away with.

Still, I sometimes have doubts about wisdom of some names (I say as the parent of a child with a decidedly unusual name). I recently saw a woman with her children in a Burger King play area. The boy was named “Massiah”. Obviously, you can name your children anything you want, but they are the ones who have to live with it. And isn’t "Massiah" a little optimistic? It would certainly put a lot of pressure on the kid. Maybe it would be kinder to go with “Superman” or "Samuel L. Jackson".

Overheard conversations:
I saw a woman on the train the other day who told her four-year old daughter, “Shut up. You just talk too much.” When another woman gave her an indulgent, rather than scandalized, smile, the mother expounded at length, in detail, for the rest of the trip about how the child never stopped talking, and how she got her loquacity from her grandmother, how she asked questions with obvious answers and was otherwise unbearably talkative. I thought, “Lady, she did not get it from her grandmother.”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is religion natural? Is science unnatural?

You and I, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, even the late Christopher Hitchens, are all religious. So you should all stop complaining about religion and trying to change people’s religious beliefs. It’s just not possible to eradicate religion, so we might as well accept whatever crazy stuff they want to believe.

Bob McCauley [Update: McCauley is this guy who blogs here.) argues that science is a fragile flower in need of precisely the right conditions in order to survive, but religion is a durable and universal part of human experience. Thus, science is no threat to religion; religion will continue whether science conflicts with it or not, and if there really is a conflict between science and religion, science will be the inevitable loser. More than that, every single person is religious; religion is part of everyone’s character whether they like it or not. Perhaps in some instances it might seem that science undermines a particular religion to some degree in some sufficiently advanced country, but in the long run, religion will survive, indeed thrive, in one form or another while science will undoubtedly disappear into the mists of time.

McCauley reasons that science involves a counterintuitive set of processes and products. The content, or product, of scientific theories is counterintuitive. Quantum physics, cosmology, microbiology, biology all involve exotic entities (from the perspective of ordinary experience) acting in complex and unexpected ways. [I’ll see if I can find a video of this. Just ask people where the mass of a tree comes from. Even people who ‘understand’ photosynthesis are unlikely to answer, “From the carbon dioxide I the air.” It is intuitively difficult to conceive of air as providing the enormous mass of a tree.] Religion involves no such counterintuitive entities: the content of religion is magical people who control events by mystical means but who are essentially like us in psychology. In other words, the key concept of religion is the agent-cause, the person or intelligent agent as a cause of events that otherwise are not explained (and, hell, really many of them that are explained in non-agent terms). You might think that religions appeal to mysterious invisible, intangible, sky-beings who operate in untestable ways with minds that are infinitely powerful, infinitely complex, and thus incomprehensible to mortals, but this is not the case. All these trappings of contemporary religion are not really religious at all but belong to theology, a highly intellectualized explanatory endeavor more akin to science or abstract fields such as mathematics or logic, than to religion. Theology, of course, could disappear, and this would have no bearing on religion whatsoever. In short, the product of the scientific method, the content of science, is counterintuitive and hard to grasp, and so cannot be considered an enduring part of human belief.

Religion, on the other hand, is simply the tendency to believe in anthropomorphic causes for events. I got the job; there must be an agent behind my good luck, a being who worked behind the scenes to get me the job. Mary got cancer; there must be someone acting to give her cancer. That’s religion, and that’s really (almost) all that religion is.

However, the product is not the main part of McCauley’s argument. The main issue for him is the process of science, not its content. “The scientific method” is not an easy or intuitive process for people to grasp and follow. (Let’s assume there is a single, albeit complex, method of science.) Ordinary people, and even trained scientists, have difficulty following the strictures of the scientific method: blind, or double-blind, experiments, mathematical models for inferring correlations, clear distinctions between correlation and causation, etc. These and other aspects of science are difficult to grasp and follow, and even trained scientists are prone to abandon them in ordinary life.

Science further requires a complex set of social relations and institutions such as publication and peer review. Religion, on the other hand, depends only on processes that are quite ‘natural’, even innate—if you believe in innateness. Religion has two main essential features: explaining events in terms of agents (intelligent beings) as causes (noted above) and treating certain items, areas, or events, as “sacred” or ”contaminated” (or treating ourselves as contaminants of the sacred). McCauley equates religion with this subset of largely erroneous reasoning tendencies and processes. Since people inevitably reason poorly in these ways, religion can never disappear.

Similarly, as it turns out, my toddler (and possibly my dog) is religious since he is prone to the same errors. Taking this poor reasoning as partly constitutive of religion does not mean that this is all there is to religion. It might be that these two features are universal to all religions, but there is more required for something to count as religion. Alas, McCauley does not offer any further definienda for religion. This failure conveniently leaves him lots of leeway to argue that religion must be natural since he considers only attributes that are shown to be ‘natural’ (what McCauley calls “maturationally natural”) by cognitive psychology.

I hope it’s obvious at this point what’s wrong with this reasoning. He’s defined science narrowly, to include only the highly sophisticated social institution of science as it is practiced in the modern world, but he’s defined religion very generally so that virtually any supernatural thinking qualifies as religion. Obviously if science were defined equally generally, as, for example, a systematic method of learning about the world by means of observation and experiment, then it would be impossible to find anyone who did not have some cognitive capacity for it and tendency to use it. My toddler certainly experiments with the world and tries to understand it, often inferring unobservable mechanisms. And there are lots of experiments in developmental psychology that show children using such inference patterns. Certainly not everyone would do science well, but it’s also obvious that not everyone does religion well either. (Hey, look at the Scientologists!) Similarly, there is a narrow definition of religion that requires it to have the kind of sophisticated social apparatus that we find in contemporary Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These types of religion clearly include counterintuitive doctrines and concepts far removed from common experience. The Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation and the triune God are highly counterintuitive. Even the processes of religion in the contemporary world can be unnatural. Do we need priests in cassocks to interpret the will of God for us? Why must these priests be sexually abstinent men? So, contemporary organized religion is just as unnatural and contingent as contemporary science (unless misogyny is intrinsic to religion); and simple science is just as unavoidable and intrinsic to human nature as is simple religion. My toddler has the same supernaturalist tendencies as religious believers, but my toddler also experiments with complex machines to try to discover their inner workings.

McCauley’s argument is an equivocation. The only thing that makes it appear plausible is the reliance on different standards or scopes for the two concepts. Religion and science are both contingent and unnatural when viewed one way (narrowly, if you will), and they are both necessary and natural when viewed another way (broadly, generally, or simply).

So, if this was obvious to me, wasn’t it also obvious to McCauley?

Ironically, McCauley identified confirmation bias as an error people commit that makes them poor scientists. He noted that people are often quite good at finding rationalizations that allow them to maintain failed theories even in the face of overwhelming counterevidence. Perhaps McCauley might do well to diagnose himself.

McCauley attempts to avoid my objection by labeling the sophisticated and unnatural activity that appears to relate to religion theology. So, there is little unnatural about religion since religion is defined as that activity that psychologists have discovered to be natural, and any unnatural aspect of religion (as we would ordinarily understand the term) is theology. Obviously, then theology could disappear without religion disappearing. Theology appears to be a set of doctrines, beliefs, rules of inference involving religion, but it does not appear to involve the practices of religion (such as the priesthood or gender discrimination). I suppose McCauley could add some other term for narrowly defined practices of a particular religion, and argue that these practices are not essential to religion either. Should we dispute McCauley’s rather arbitrary distinction between the theology (and theological processes involving, say, confession or the priesthood)? It’s probably not worth it; McCauley can define his terms in whatever way he wants as long as we can explain them in ordinary terms that anyone can understand. So, here’s how to state McCauley’s claims in those ordinary terms:

There are supernaturalist tendencies in human reasoning that tend to persist even when people are aware that this reasoning is fallacious. Similarly, humans have difficulty in applying good scientific reasoning; instead, they often rely on or apply poor scientific reasoning. Of course, humans are capable of good scientific reasoning on their own, but they are more effective if they have complex social institutions that allow for critique and debate.

Given these facts, it is also entirely possible that people can reason well enough together that they will not be taken in by supernaturalist reasoning. McCauley doesn’t exactly emphasize the last point, but it’s implicit in his discussion of science since science succeeds despite our tendency towards error.

Take that, Dawkins! Religion 1, Science 0.

My friend who brought in McCauley for the lecture explains that Dawkins and Dennett think that the demise of religion is inevitable and that McCauley is merely providing a dose of realism. I cannot speak for Dawkins/Dennett, or the rest of the Four Horsemen of the Theopocalypse. So, this claim may be true or it may not. Still, I have two questions. (1) What do we do about religion if some important aspect of it is difficult to eradicate from human psychology? And (2) are societies in which religion has a strong grip more successful (in the sense that they are more likely to survive, spread their belief systems) than those that are less religious? Will the religious or non-religious societies compete more effectively?

To the first question: If we believe, as McCauley does, that religion is essentially irrational, then we ought to do everything possible to limit its power and influence, to educate people sufficiently so that they cease to be religious, and implement social policies that will make it more likely that religions will slowly fade away. Clearly these things can be done, and they would not require mistreatment of the religious or religions. We need only cease to give religion special treatment in order for it to lose at least some of its power. The most effective thing to do would be to stop giving special support for religion. For example, religions are given a prominent role in all sorts of social circumstances that their actual contribution to society does not merit. We could stop giving invocations at public events as a way of reducing religion’s influence. We could stop giving religions special treatment in funding for their activities. For example, drop all the federal government’s ‘faith-based initiatives’ and make social spending based on evidence, not faith. We could work harder to educate our children in science and limit the role of religion in schools. We can improve our social support for the poor and disadvantaged in order to limit the need for social services religions provide. We could make it easier for people to live without religion. We do not need just to imagine doing these things either because most European nations already do them, and those nations fare better on basically any measure of social welfare or happiness than America does.

To the second question: I do not know whether religious or non-religious societies will thrive in a kind of evolutionary free-for-all, but I know that public policies based on religion and religious thinking cause tremendous problems for our society. America is, I think, dropping from the ranks of the developed world. And it’s fairly clear that the benighted policies of our conservative leaders, supported by their religious followers, have led to this trend. The authoritarian-follower personality of the conservative movement in America, dominated by religious believers, has enabled the looting of the government by the wealthy and the gradual decay of our infrastructure and our important social institutions (such as public education). Societies that are free of religion do better in promoting the welfare of their citizens and fit better in a community of nations. I do not know if this means they will continue to exist longer or spread their values more effectively than will more religious nations (such as America or Saudi Arabia), but it is devoutly to be hoped that they will, and it seems a worthwhile goal to work towards achieving that end.

There are successful nations with majority atheist populations. There are organizations of scientists who inculcate good reasoning into scientists at young ages, and they are capable of leaving behind most of their errors and superstition. There are millions of atheists worldwide. All of these people may be prone to errors of reasoning, but these millions appear to have avoided or corrected this reasoning in adherence to ‘the’ scientific method and/or in rejecting religion. So, the relative naturalness of superstition is not sufficient evidence that superstition cannot be overcome or replaced with more careful reasoning.

McCauley reasons that religion is, at bottom, a kind of fallacious or erroneous reasoning, so he cannot reasonably object to the attempts by the new atheists to limit, even eradicate, its influence. Perhaps it will be harder to do this than some think, but if you really think that religion is basically superstition and cognitive error, then you really cannot accept religion with equanimity. If superstition can be fought at all, which it clearly can be, then our goal, whether it is easy or difficult, should be to fight it. I can only hope that McCauley’s overall purpose is to warn atheists away from false optimism, but, if so, that was not the tenor of his talk. I cannot help feeling that McCauley's argument is really a counsel to despair, that we should accept that people cannot change this aspect of their psychology. To me, even if he is correct about these kinds of cognitive errors being universal, if religion really is rooted in fallacious reasoning, then this fact should provide more motivation to oppose it.